Outbreaks of COVID-19 in private and state-run psychiatric hospitals are not being regularly disclosed by Michigan health officials, even though multiple outbreaks have occurred leading to patient deaths.
While the virus is known to spread rapidly in congregate care settings, psychiatric patients and their loved ones are not afforded the same transparency given to those in nursing homes, schools and even prisons.
Only when asked by 7 Action News did the state reveal outbreaks in its five state-operated psychiatric facilities. Health officials said they would not disclose COVID-19 data for private psychiatric facilities statewide.
“It’s certainly very frustrating that this information isn’t readily available and we have to figure out how to navigate it on our own,” said Michelle Massey Barnes, whose 15-year-old son has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals over the last two years.
Emergency psychiatric beds for adolescents are so scarce in Michigan that Barnes and her son are often forced to waits hours or days in an emergency room before they can be admitted for treatment.
The process is so common that it has a name—psychiatric boarding—and while it was dangerous before the pandemic, the risk of contracting COVID-19 has made the wait even more treacherous.
“Everyone. Children, adults, their parents, they’re all in one main room,” Massey Barnes said.
Since the pandemic, she and her son have had to board for more than 24-hours on several occasions, often without being able to socially distance.
“There are times when it is overflowing and you have no choice but to be directly next to people because there’s nowhere else to go,” she said.
Massey Barnes said knowing which hospitals are experiencing COVID outbreaks would be relevant in determining which hospital to take her son.
But while the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services or MDHHS tracks COVID among psychiatric patients and staff, it has elected not to disclose the information publicly.
Outbreaks kept quiet
When FOX 47 News has MDHHS to share its internal statistics for COVID-19 among public and private psychiatric hospitals, the department provided data for its five state-run hospitals, but said statistics for private facilities would take days to compile.
While all of the state’s five psychiatric facilities reported cases among either patients, staff or both, all but one reported cases in the single digits since September.
But Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, which treats about 150 patients at a time, reported an outbreak that sidelined 51 patients and 63 staff members. This month, one of those patients died.
Details of the outbreak were never publicly disclosed.
While MDHHS provided 7 Action News with data about COVID in its five state-run hospitals, it declined to do so about the more than 70 private psychiatric hospital or units across the state.
"We don’t release case data for individual private hospitals," said spokesman Bob Wheaton.
Mental health advocates say psychiatric patients and family members deserve the same information afforded to those in nursing homes, schools and prisons.
“It’s the type of thing that the broad mental health community needs to hear about and know about,” said longtime mental health advocate Mark Reinstein, who has helped enact changes to how Michigan treats and cares for the mentally ill.
“Too often, we tell people with mental illness that you’re not important,” he said, “and this could be taken as another one of those messages."
Late Wednesday, Wheaton tried to clarify why the state wouldn't release hospital data for more than 70 private psychiatric hospitals and units.
"The data reported by the hospitals is used to identify trends. The hospitals are making decisions – such as admitting and discharging patients – all day, and the information we get is once a day," he said. "Providing that data would paint an inaccurate picture of the situation at the hospital."
Wheaton did not immediately answer why the department regularly releases COVID data for nursing homes, which also discharge and admit new patients on a daily basis.
Dr. George Mellos, the deputy director of state hospital administration, said that the virus “runs rampant” once it makes its way inside a congregate care facility.
“It’s really tough to contain,” he said, but believes that the outbreak at Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital is now under control.
About 700 patients are served in the state’s five psychiatric hospitals, but a far greater number are treated in private facilities throughout the state. How the virus may be spreading in private hospitals is harder to determine.
Until last month, Susan Mitchell was a nurse at Detroit’s Stonecrest Center, one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in the state. Protecting patients from the virus, she said, was often a losing battle.
“(Patients) depend on us—the workers—to keep them safe, and we didn’t do that. We didn’t social distance them,” she said. “They were not masked, unless they insisted they wanted a mask.”
In a statement, Stonecrest Center CEO Steve Savage acknowledged that both patients and staff have tested positive for COVID-19, but stressed that the hospital is following strict protocol to stop the spread of the virus and that masks are provided to all patients.
“The patients who have developed symptoms or have tested positive are moved to a designated unit where the patient is cared for by a dedicated staff equipped with appropriate PPE.” he said in part in an e-mailed statement. “We also have additional medical clinicians to support our patients who develop symptoms.”
The exception, not the rule
Since early in the pandemic, the Michigan Department of Corrections has regularly reported outbreaks through its prison system, updating stats daily.
Beginning in April, and in response to public pressure, the state began to also report outbreaks in nursing homes and assisted living communities among staff and patients.
When schools returned to in-person learning this fall, the state began providing weekly updates of COVID cases.
Mark Reinstein urged the state to begin reporting the COVID data in psychiatric hospitals regularly, asking: “How long would it take to put it on a website?”
The department declined when asked to take part in an interview, but issued a statement defending its actions.
“It’s not possible for the department to post all of the data that MDHHS receives to the website – as staff are focused first on combatting the spread of COVID-19,” said MDHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton. “For that reason, we post the information that we believe is most relevant and that is most requested by the public.”
Mental health advocates like Reinstein disagree, saying any data about COVID in psychiatric hospitals is critically relevant to prospective patients and their loved ones.
“These are people too,” Reinstein said. “These are people that we want to protect to the maximum degree possible.”